Defense is the story this week in the Super Bowl, and a league that is claimed to be all about offense is once again showing that you can’t hoist the trophy if you can’t get stops. Luckily for the Patriots, free agency and the draft in the NFL allow teams to fix holes, and this year is primed with a strong defensive free agent class. Last week I discussed the Patriots offense and the moves that would make the most sense to get them that 4th ring. As much as I believe the offense has some fundamental moves to make, I also believe the defense needs some fine tuning in order to make it not only serviceable, which it was in 2012, but game changing. When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they were making noise with their front seven and an opportunistic secondary. The offense was good, but nothing like the 2007-2012 run. Although I do believe this change in offense has lead to some of the defensive issues, it is time for the defense to win games when Tom Brady simply can’t. Allowing 28 points at home to the Ravens in the AFC Title game is unacceptable and will not get the job done.
Some will point to the injuries to Talib and Jones as the reasons for the Patriots struggles versus the Ravens, but it should not have crushed them. Yes, Talib’ injury was a killer because of the domino effect and Jones pass rush abilities were missed, but that is two of 11 guys. The Patriots need to be able to handle these types of losses and still be good on defense. The Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011 after being decimated in the secondary because of their depth in other areas. The Ravens are in the Super Bowl tomorrow even though they have dealt with injuries all year. They didn’t make excuses and guys stepped up. The Patriots haven’t done this in a long time, and if the needs can’t all be met in the draft, how can they fix this? Easy; attack free agency and sign some of the strong crop available.
Everything starts up front, so I might as well do the same. The Patriots showed flashes of a legitimate pass rush in 2012, an area that has been lacking for far too long and is one of the main reasons the secondary and linebackers looks like Swiss cheese in the passing game. I have been begging this team to attack more, and at times, it actually happened. Chandler Jones clearly hit the rookie wall, but Justin Francis and Rob Ninkovich were able to pick up the load. The 2013 free agent class of defensive ends and tackles has some stand out names that could be potential targets for the Patriots.
The first name that has to be mentioned is Richard Seymour. Yes, he is 33 and at the end of his career, but his game hasn’t dropped off as much as most his age does, and the bottom line is they need him. I have read and heard that the Patriots won’t go back down that path, but that makes no sense. Here is the deal- if the Patriots weren’t saddled with the Adalius Thomas contract along with having to re-sign Wilfork, Seymour, and Mankins, Richard Seymour most likely gets a deal too. The Thomas deal is ignored, and the truth is that is why Big Sey had to go. Seymour is also on record as recommending New England to Gerard Warren, so clearly the respect level is still there. What better way for Seymour to finish his career then holding up the Lombardi he barely missed out on in February of 2008.
Two big names that also jump off the list of defensive ends are Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney. I personally don’t see Freeney as a fit in the Patriots defense, but with Bill Belichick, anything is possible. Umenyiora, on the other hand, makes sense if the money is right. First, the Patriots add a great pass rusher and overall defender in an area of need, and the Patriots also steal one of their nemesis top players. Don’t tell me BB wouldn’t be laughing it up looking at Jake Ballard and Osi Umenyiora tearing it up in Patriots uniforms. If you can’t beat them, sign them.
Trevor Scott is one of the Patriots own free agents who could return on a one year deal, but with Jake Bequette still around, it is no guarantee he returns. As far as interior lineman, there are some “pluggers” available that could provide solid depth in the rotation. Mike Devito, Pat Sims, Randy Starks, Vaughn Martin and Alan Branch are all veteran names to keep an eye on. Devito would be a coup due to his knowledge of the division and his subtraction from a still very talented Jets defense.
In the linebacker group, one player has made himself some substantial money over the last month. Paul Kruger is playing in the Super Bowl tomorrow and will be cashing in March. Although Bill Belichick has professed his affection for him as a player, I don’t see him dipping his feet into that Baltimore free agent linebacker pool. He got burnt once and there are too many other needs. Anthony Spencer is a free agent who could come in and provide depth and will most likely not demand a huge contract. Connor Barwin was a guy the Patriots were rumored to be hot on when he was drafted, and his numbers have not been as good as expected, so he wouldn’t break the bank either. Special teams ace Tracey White is also a free agent, and I fully expect him to at least be on the roster in training camp. Dane Fletcher was re-signed to a one year deal this week, so linebacker is the one area where continuity may be the best formula for improvement.
On to the area where Patriots fans suffer heart palpitations on a weekly basis and has most likely cost New England a title, the secondary. They have drafted bust after bust, and the truth of the matter is, they need to look at players that have already established themselves in the NFL. They clearly hit a 7th round home run with Alfonzo Dennard, but even Devin McCourty is a safety now, so only one of the multitudes of picks is still here. The Aqib Talib trade proved to be a smart move, but there is one caveat; he’s a free agent and teams will come calling. Unless the offers are outrageous, the Patriots should find a way to get a deal done. This is one of the few times they got it right and they cannot afford to regress back to the Sergio Brown-ish secondary days of 2011.
Brent Grimes is also available, but he is also going to command top dollar. Why sign a guy you don’t know when Talib is known to work in the system? I’d avoid Grimes if I’m handing out the contracts. Sean Smith is also available, but the Dolphins have a good amount of cap room and the last thing they can afford to do is let talented players walk away. Nate Clements and Rashean Mathis are also two very good veteran free agents that could help the Patriots if Talib isn’t kept around. Kyle Arrington is also a free agent, and I think it is time for the Patriots to move on.
The safety position has also been VERY lacking since Rodney Harrison hung up his cleats, and adding a player with his ability is one of the Patriots top goals of the offseason. There has been this crazy rumor floating, and verified, that Ed Reed is interested in coming to New England. Get it done. I don’t care what it takes, go get him. If he is only here for two years, I don’t care; he is the piece they need. People think about safeties for their hard hits and setting a tone, which Reed does, but where he is great is communication. Great safeties help the corners because they see things before they happen. Pat Chung (let him walk) is not good in this area, and that was why there was improvement when Gregory and McCourty formed their duo. If Reed and McCourty were manning the safety spots, the Patriots pass defense would move into the top 10. Dashon Goldson, a player that Patriots brought in for a visit in 2011, is also available, and he would be one heck of a consolation prize if Reed was to return to Baltimore or sign elsewhere.
The goal of the offseason for the defense is clear- continue to improve the pass defense. Add to the pass rush and fortify the secondary, and there is a chance that a defense with promise could become a championship defense with clout.